WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — New Zealanders began voting Thursday on whether to change their flag from a design which features the British Union Jack to one which features a native silver fern.
The postal ballot will extend over the next three weeks, with preliminary results to be announced March 24.
Organizers say that deciding the issue by popular vote represents a world first, and that other countries have changed flags by revolution, decree or legislation.
Opinion polls indicate the nation of 4.7 million people will opt to stick with its current flag, although proponents of the new design say they have momentum on their side and that more and more people are embracing a change.
Those favoring change say the current flag is too similar to Australia's and references a colonial past that it's time to leave behind.
Those opposed to change say the new design is uninspiring or is an attempt by Prime Minister John Key to create a legacy. One group seeking to keep the status quo is the Returned and Services Association, which represents war veterans.
The process of choosing a potential new flag has been long and sometimes amusing. People submitted more than 10,000 designs, including bizarre ones like a kiwi bird shooting a green laser beam from its eye and a stick drawing of a deranged cat.
A December popular vote saw a flag by architectural designer Kyle Lockwood become the official challenger. Like the current flag, it features four red stars representing the Southern Cross, but replaces the Union Jack with a fern and changes the background colors.
Prime Minister Key told Radio New Zealand this week that people had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to vote for a new flag.
"If they don't vote for change now, they'll never get another chance until we become a republic," he said, adding that he could not see that happening within his lifetime because of the popularity of the young British royals.